A beautiful blonde woman awakens in her upscale, downtown apartment and makes love to her boyfriend. He heads out to his car, which explodes as soon as he gets behind the wheel.
Horrified, she rushes outside, in the dramatic opening moments of Web of Lies, one of the library of made-for-TV movies created by Montreal production house Incendo. Since 2001, the company has been pumping out about five movies a year, all of which involve a tried-and-true formula: They are women-in-peril movies, in which smart, savvy females find themselves in hot water due to work or romantic complications (or some combination of both). No matter what you call the genre – pulp TV, chick-flick noir – it is decidedly light, and more often than not it is entertaining. And while film critics tend to ignore this kind of thriller, you can't argue with Incendo's success. In a rapidly changing entertainment-media economy – one that in most cases is shrinking – Incendo's products are seen in virtually every broadcast market in the world.
Incendo was founded by Stephen Greenberg, 56, and Jean Bureau, 48, a decade ago, after several years of upheaval in the Quebec film and TV scene. Both of them had worked at production house Astral, and trained under the tutelage of Greenberg's father, the late Harold Greenberg, who is widely regarded as a pioneer of the Canadian film and TV industry. But Astral sold off its distribution division, and after it went through a series of ownership changes, Greenberg and Bureau decided to make a go of it on their own, establishing Incendo as a film producer and distributor. It holds the Canadian distribution rights to a number of American hits, including everything Fox produces – yes, that includes The Simpsons, arguably the most lucrative TV franchise in history – making Incendo the largest TV distribution company in Canada.
Beyond the business of distribution, Greenberg and Bureau wanted to create content of their own. Sitting in their swank Westmount high-rise offices, they say that their intent in establishing their own company was to avoid the mistakes of the past. “Jean and I have seen every deal, good and bad, every screwball financing plan,” Greenberg says. “We've been doing this for more than 30 years. We've been able to steer clear of problems we've seen others in the business get into.”
The key to Incendo's initial sales and continuing growth has been a willingness to listen to its clients, very carefully. “Some in the film industry make films for themselves, and that's fine,” Bureau says. “We create programming for the specific needs of our broadcasters. These are thrillers with female leads. When you look at the ratings for a thriller with a male lead, they're not as strong. With a female lead, you assure the female audience too, and the ratings are better. We make a better niche product, one that performs as well as possible for our clients.”
Bureau says the idea for the Incendo thriller came to them at a time when the movie-of-the-week (MOW) was in transition. In the late 1990s, a close friend and mentor, Bill Miller, visited them in Montreal. Then-president of the major U.S. TV production and distribution company Hearst Entertainment, Miller had sage advice about where MOWs were heading. “TV movies were then about cancer – the disease-of-the-week movie,” Bureau recalls. “But Bill said he couldn't sell those movies overseas any more. He was focused on the international sales. He knew that advertisers wanted to reach women who stayed at home. He said we needed to reach those women with a different kind of film.” Disease-of-the-week movies were no longer selling abroad, Bureau says, in part because local TV companies were covering stories about women who were facing those challenges. In order to survive, MOWs needed to find a new formula that would have universal appeal across borders and regions.
What the three men were talking about was gendered programming. Women often make the purchasing decisions for the household and are therefore a crucial demographic for advertisers. The MOW had traditionally been a sure-fire way to reach that audience. Network executives knew that if a rival broadcaster was going to feature a major sporting event, they would do well to program a female-friendly melodrama as competition. Since women had less interest in sports than their male partners, they inevitably turned on the second TV in the household to watch the MOW.